This jenky ode to a dead music genre lets you collect bananas while trampling through a glitched-out Jungle Hijinxs as a slowed-down, reverb-infested remix of the DKC soundtrack plays in the background. Any questions?
DonkeyKong.exe resulted from a very small game jam taking place in Gothenburg, Sweden. The group, Indie Games Gothenburg, decide to work on completing a bunch of game experiments around the theme of bananas prior to Retrospelsmässan, a local convention celebrating retro games. One was a platformer in the style of a Virtual Boy game, complete with a homemade headset. Another let you decorate a polygonal banana with an uncanny resemblance to Wario.
And then there was DonkeyKong.exe, also titled スーパードンキーコング Ｄ Ｒ Ｅ Ａ Ｍ Ａ Ｋ Ｅ, a micro-game (it’s only a few minutes long) that marries the nostalgia of a classic SNES platformer with ironic mix-media collages inspired by vaporwave. Created by Sebastian Strand, there’s not a whole lot to say about the project other than it’s lovely bizarre little mash-up of two great things that approximates the culture and aesthetic sensibility of 90s gaming like few things can.
If you’re wondering what the hell vaporwave is, the above is a prime example. A track by the artist Vektroid who created it under the alias Macintosh Plus, Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing was what got stuck in Strand’s head and drove him to want to dive deeper into the music and art surrounding vaporwave, and eventually even create a game inspired by the movement. Chill and dreamy, the genre of music hit critical mass in the early 2010s but was subsequently declared dead by its progenitors who had already begun moving on to make music in different sub genres (an easy way to pass the time is to go into the Youtube comments of any vaporwave track and watch listeners debate the finer points of made-up genres 99.9% of people have never heard of before).
“A colleague of mine had the cover art of ‘Macintosh Plus - Floral Shoppe’ as his desktop background, and it was too weird and interesting for me to not ask what it was all about,” Strand told me in an email. “He showed me the album, and the music was as strange as the aesthetics around it. I was a bit dismissive at first, but after whistling to the tune of “Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing” for three days straight I realized I had to go back.”
Vaporwave’s fans are diehard, but in my experience the music leaves most people unphased. Instead, it caters to a very particular set of tastes, including 90s elevator muzak, muffled, downtempo beats, and the idiosyncratic but iconic sounds of obsolete technology ranging from the Windows 97 startup music to the computer chorus echoing the word “Sega” every time you booted up Sonic. Strand turned out to fit that profile.
“I surrendered and was hooked,” he said. “I drank the Kool-Aid and dove down into the maddening hole of the genre, discovering all the wonderful variations, sub genres, movements and memes from Future Funk to Vaportrap to Simpsonwave. The mere spectrum of how Vaporwave is expressed and redefined is just amazing to me.”
He continued, “Beyond just how it sounds, it’s ambivalent relationship to commercialism and the notion of dissecting (often superficial) popular culture and twisting and redefining it into something new just tickles me the right way.”
DonkeyKong.exe tries to capture those same features and apply them to a game that could not be more a product of its time. Donkey Kong Country even opens with Cranky Kong spinning a phonograph in analog before Donkey and Diddy drop in with a boombox to start blasting the future until grandpa’s ears bleed, so there’s a certain kind of logic to Strand’s project. The game is three levels mostly based around Donkey and Diddy hopping through the jungle to collect bananas and golden letters arranged in weird patters while a stripped out background substitutes a pre-rendered sunset for something more cyberpunk.
But it’s the third level where Strand does the most work, swapping out the moment when Donkey Kong walks into his cave to discover his hoard of bananas has been stolen with one where Cranky Kong falls Alice In Wonderland-style down through a montage of the game’s marketing iconography. “It’s Cranky falling through a twisted mash up of Japanese Donkey King commercials,” Strand said. “...it doesn’t lend itself very well to description and I encourage you to just play it again if you get the time.”
By ripping the imagery from its original home, a thirty second spot in-between Garfield and Friends on Saturday morning or a grey cartridge you used to rent from Blockbuster, the artifice disappears to reveal the objects of our affection in a new light. Vaporwave is to some degree a reaction to the conspicuous consumption of the late 80s, and how even trying to resist that through movements like slackerism or grunge give birth to their own form of uncritical materialism.
In DonkeyKong.exe, this sentiment manifests itself in phrases scattered through out that cast a cynical eye on the way gaming tries to commodify fun and is perhaps willing to trade its soul in the pursuit of great #content. “All this game play is too much for me,” DonkeyKong.exe says at pone point.
While Strand’s project is the first that I’m aware of to inflict the beautiful baggage of vaporwave on the Donkey Kong Country programming code, it’s by no means the first mashup in general. Music and scenes from the late 90s TV show have gotten similar treatment, while the game’s animations have been used to create videos for some of the most prominent vaporwave tracks.
DonkeyKong.exe ends with a jab at the idea that vaporwave and Donkey Kong Country could both be dead when so many people continue to be invested in playing with and re-imagining them, and with any luck, the best days of Donkey Kong wave are still ahead.